Here’s a sneak peek at our forthcoming article in the summer edition of Piedmont Virginian magazine.
One of the pleasures in writing this column is the opportunity to learn something new. While examining a painting during a recent appraisal, I found my attention wandering to the fireplace mantle, where a stunning collection of glazed pottery was arrayed. One piece in particular, a sleeping lamb, caught my eye and convinced me that it was time to make a proper study of this local genre.
The style known as Shenandoah pottery was introduced to the region by German artisans in the 18th century and reached its peak in the years after the Civil War (abundant lead, scavenged from the field of battle and used to produce the style’s brilliant glazes, was one key to this rise in quality and availability). In terms of quality and quantity, the richest concentration of potteries was centered in Strasburg, VA, though kilns owned by notable artisans such as the Bell and Eberly families could be found as far north as Pennsylvania and west to the Alleghanies, spanning an area of more than 7,000 square miles. The market for such pieces extended up and down the valley that gives its name to the distinctive mottled pottery, and crossed over the Blue Ridge to markets throughout the Piedmont and east to the Potomac.
In the late 19th century, demand for Shenandoah pottery was high, but so was competition. Innovations in glass manufacture led to lighter, cheaper containers that could be shipped by rail around the country. These, and changing tastes, contributed to the demise of the valley potteries. By 1908 they were gone.
Most surviving examples of their production bear a distinctive splatter of brown-and-green mottled glaze over a redware base. Although beautifully decorated, Shenandoah pottery is utilitarian above all. Jugs, coolers, urns, bowls other household containers are common; doorstops, cuspidors (spittoons), gravestones and the rare piece intended purely for decoration also survive.
Perhaps the most fascinating–and frustrating–aspect of Shenandoah pottery is the problem of attribution. Master potters experimented constantly with new techniques and glaze formulas. Kiln workers moved freely from job to job, site to site, carrying tools and techniques with them. A stamp on the clay body may tell where the piece was made, but not who decorated it. And that artisan may have performed similar work for multiple masters.
Scholarship continues to emerge and evolve, causing periodic reexamination of accepted truths. In the 1970s, the work of John Bell (active Winchester, VA and Waynesboro, PA circa 1827-1895) was considered by some scholars to represent the pinnacle of production; the finest extant examples of Shenandoah pottery were accordingly attributed to him. The discovery of the workshop notebooks of his younger rival, Letch Eberly (b. 1859), has since suggested that Eberly, and not Bell, developed the distinctive glaze that characterizes the style’s apex. Many examples bearing what was once known as the “Bell Glaze” have since been reclassified as the work of the Eberly family.
Our little lamb is a case in point. Intended as markers for a child’s grave, only a handful of similar pieces survive. It’s speculated that of these, most were employed inside as doorstops, due to the distinctive chipping and wear patterns around the noses and tails. A generation ago, these were almost universally attributed to the Bell workshop. Today, at least one scholar asserts with confidence that the Eberlys were the sole makers of these sleeping lambs. This present example, glimpsed on the mantlepiece in a private Piedmont collection, may well be the finest surviving example of a glazed Shenandoah lamb: but we may never know with absolute certainty who made it.